Did the London Passenger Transport Board Secure for the Workers the Best Obtainable System of Popular Administration and Control? 1905-1948

Welcome to our second post by York Transport Historians group member, James Fowler. James is a 3rd year PhD Student with The York Management School.

My thesis is a wide ranging analysis of the development of London Transport between the report of the Royal Commission in 1905 and Nationalisation in 1948. It seeks to offer answers in the ongoing debate about which forms of corporate governance and public administration deliver transport most effectively and for whom. A central theme here is the tension between the ideals of public administration of organisations and the realities of politics. In summary I think that the operational and technical analysis of the development of London transport is a well trodden path, but the politics and public administration of the organisation has been little explored and is actually more illuminating in terms of understanding the nature of the system and who has benefitted from it.
Albert Stanley - Lord Ashfield, Chairman of the LPTB
Albert Stanley – Lord Ashfield – Chairman of the London Passenger Transport Board.

I’m currently in the third year of my work and so naturally it is always possible that fresh evidence from the archives will change my arguments. However, some themes are appearing consistently through the detail.

The first is a revision of the long held views about the financial viability of London transport in general and the London Underground in particular. Conventional wisdom has it that the tubes were never viable and had to be supported by bus revenue[1] and that the London Passenger Transport Board (LPTB) was burdened with insupportable debts its creation that stymied services, wages and investment.[2]
The reality is far more complex. Some tube lines consistently paid dividends, some did not. It is true that none of the tube lines paid double digit returns like the buses, but without their existence the buses could not have been a viable transport medium and therefore financial pooling accurately reflected an operational reality, not an act of charity. Finally, when operational circumstances changed radically during the First World War, the tubes subsidised the buses. The charge that bondholder’s interests trumped passengers and employees is also open to challenge. Again, it is true that statutory returns to bondholders from the LPTB were fixed at a generous rate in the context of the period. However, the response of the Board was simply never to pay the statutory rate to a significant number of them. By contrast, the trend in nominal and real fares fell throughout the period while numbers employed, conditions and real wages all improved.  Second, the role of national, municipal and local government in the evolution of transport provision is consistently underestimated or missed in the major overviews of the topic. [1] [2] [3]
The central question here, the answer to which incidentally goes a long way to addressing many of the ‘underinvestment’ and ‘network coverage’ issues highlighted in the literature, is why London never acquired an equivalent of either the Metropolitan Transit Authority in New York or the city controlled Metro de Paris. The answer lies in a thorough analysis of the evolution of municipal government in London and its relationship to both other local authorities and Parliament. In a nutshell it seems it was caught between the upper and nether millstones of vested interests and a fear of municipal socialism.[4] [5]
Third there is an apparent paradox which challenges our current obsession with audit and transparency. While the leadership of the LPTB was essentially unaccountable to the public, regulatory bodies, Ministers or stockholders, it nevertheless managed its operations in a fundamentally efficient and honest manner. There was no shortage of crooks in the period. In the industry Yerkes and Whitaker-Wright had carved out notorious reputations and wider society at the time contained plenty of dishonest businessmen such as Clarence Hatry. The final chapter will explore how the LPTB managed itself and how effective it’s most well known leaders, Pick and Ashfield, really

Frank Pick - Vice Chairman of the LPTB
Fran Pick, Vice Chairman of the London Passenger Transport Board

were and why they did not indulge in corporate malfeasance.

In conclusion, the evolution of transport provision in London in the period 1905-1948 offers the full spectrum of corporate and public form from small scale private sector to complete nationalisation, an analysis of which allows us to consider which the most effective in securing the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of transport provision.
[1] Barker, T and Robbins, M. (1976) A History of London Transport Volume Two, Allen & Unwin.
[2] Wolmar, C. (2005) The Subterranean Railway, London: Atlantic Books.
[3] Jackson, A & Croome, D. (1962) Rails Through Clay, Routledge.
[4] Robson, W. (1939) The Government and Misgovernment of London, Allen & Unwin.
[5] Chandler, J. (2007) Explaining Local Government, Manchester University Press.



Who are the ‘railway family’ and why are they so important?

Welcome to the blog of the York Transport Historians Group (YTHG). The blog will showcase some of the research that YTHG  are undertaking, and provide updates on our activities. Our first blog post comes from Hannah Reeves, a collaborative doctoral award holder studying with the National Railway Museum and Keele University.

My thesis focuses on the idea of the ‘railway family’ as it was developed and maintained in the first half of the twentieth century. The idea of the ‘railway family’ is twofold: firstly, the most common definition is of generations of the same family who all held jobs within the railway industry. Photographic examples and articles about railway families can be found in both railway company and trade union newspapers and magazines.[1] The second definition of the idea of the ‘railway family’ was as a way in which railway companies and trade unions united their employees or members into a community, drawing in their non-working wives and family members, who traditionally had been excluded as they did not work in the industry and were unable to join the union.

This idea of the ‘railway family’ manifested itself in a number of ways. For railway companies, this involved using their company magazines to instil the idea of the ‘railway family’ through the language that the company used to describe their workers and family members. They included all family members in the idea, whether they worked for the company or not. This allowed them to access the benefits and welfare schemes that the railway companies constructed in order to secure the loyalty of their workforce.

Conversely, trade unions did not seek to draw women and children into their organisation, but set up separate women’s trade union auxiliaries through which the wives and daughters of trade union railwaymen could support the organisation. These auxiliaries were involved in organising social events, fundraising for the Orphan and Benevolent Funds and supporting the trade unions in strikes and campaigning for better pay and working conditions for railwaymen. Some branches of these women’s trade union auxiliaries became involved in local and national politics, focusing on issues that most affected women and the idea of the ‘railway family’, for example infant and maternal welfare, old age pensions and military conscription. Both the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) Women’s Guild, founded in 1900, and the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (ASLEF) Women’s Society, founded in 1924, encouraged railwaymen’s wives and daughters to support their respective trade union and to find their own voices to campaign on issues that mattered to them, whether within the railway industry, the Labour movement or in the wider political sphere.Railway Family 2

So why is this study of the ‘railway family’ important? The idea of the ‘railway family’ was a way in which railway companies and trade unions could encourage loyalty from railwaymen and their families. For railway companies it assisted with the transition from paternalistic welfare practices, which emphasised the dependence of the worker on his employer, towards Industrial Welfare, whereby self-help was encouraged with support from the companies themselves.[2] For trade unions it allowed women to become involved with the union, but also acted as a barrier, enhancing the idea that women were a temporary phenomenon within the railway industry, with the exception of railway clerks. A railwayman’s wife was privileged over women workers, and their support and involvement in the idea of the ‘railway family’ was nurtured over that of the female worker. The women’s trade union auxiliaries are particularly noteworthy, because of the role they encouraged women to play in local and national politics, with conferences and campaigns, as town councillors, JP’s and magistrates, and the education they provided into issues within the Labour movement and wider world.Railway Family 3

The idea of the ‘railway family’ allows us to study the railway industry from a different perspective; to consider the responses of railway companies and trade unions to challenges to paternalism and the rise of female labour, and to examine how railwaymen and their non-working wives and family members responded to the idea of the ‘railway family’.

[1] One of the first examples of ASLEF railway families appeared in the ‘Locomotive Journal’, 53, 2 (1940) p.78

[2] Michael Heller, ‘Sport, bureaucracies and London clerks 1880 – 1939’ The International Journal of the History of Sport, 25, 5 (2008) pp. 580